Giving Compass’ Take:
• Alexi Jones provides concrete steps that counties can take to address and prevent jail overcrowding without making more space.
• Which approach makes aligns with the needs and assets of your county?
• Read about mass incarceration in 2019.
As jail populations have skyrocketed over the past three decades, jails around the country have become dangerously overcrowded. The reflexive response is often to start the long, expensive process of building a larger jail. However, this report provides a roadmap to easier, quicker, cheaper, and more just solutions to jail overcrowding. It is organized around a series of questions that local decisionmakers should be asking and then lays out a detailed briefing on best practices for reducing jail overcrowding.
Part 1: Questions to ask law enforcement, the judiciary, and jail expansion advocates
- Is the county holding too many people in jail pretrial?
- Is the county incarcerating people because they cannot afford to pay fines and fees?
- Is the county incarcerating people with substance use and mental health disorders who should be treated in the community?
- Is the county overincarcerating people convicted of misdemeanors and low-level offenses?
- Is the county using its limited jail space to hold people for other authorities?
- Does the jail hold a lot of people for minor parole and probation violations?
- How much will building the new jail really cost the county?
Part 2: Best practices for reducing jail overcrowding
Reforming pretrial detention: Nationally, 76% of people held by local jails are not convicted of a crime and are legally presumed innocent. While some people are incarcerated because they pose a significant safety or non-appearance risk, many are there simply because they cannot afford to pay cash bail. This creates a two-tiered justice system in which people who have enough money to pay cash bail are released, while poor Americans are forced to remain in jail as their case moves through the system. There are also significant racial disparities in pretrial detention, as Black and Hispanic individuals accused of crimes are more likely to be detained pretrial compared to similarly situated white individuals.
Reforming how counties issue fees and fines to ensure low-income people are not being punished for being poor: People who come in contact with our criminal justice system are disproportionately poor, but are often charged fines and fees that are impossible for them to pay. People are charged fines as sanctions for anything from municipal or traffic violations to felony cases. On top of fines, people are often charged numerous fees as they move through the court and criminal justice system, including pre-sentence report fees, public defender fees, fees for electronic monitoring, pay-to-stay fees, supervision fees, and more. When fines and fees are issued, people’s ability to pay is rarely taken into account. As a result, people, especially people of color, can end up saddled with thousands of dollars of criminal justice debt that they have no hope of paying off.
Ensuring people with mental health and substance use disorders are treated, not incarcerated: It is estimated that 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year. Nationally, about 15% of men and 31% of women in jails have a serious mental illness compared to 3% and 5% percent in the general population. And about 68% of the jail population meets medical standards for having a diagnosable substance use disorder.
Creating alternatives to incarceration for people convicted of misdemeanors and low-level offenses: Even for people who have been convicted, incarceration may not be an appropriate response. Three-quarters of people in jail who have been convicted are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. For people convicted of such low-level crimes, incarceration is tremendously counterproductive: It cuts them off from people and programs that could help them turn their lives around while yielding virtually no benefits to public safety.
Stop renting jail beds to other authorities in order to reduce jail overcrowding: In 2013, 8 in 10 jails held people, either pretrial or sentenced, for other county jails, state prisons, or federal authorities such as the U.S. Marshals Service, the Bureau of Prisons, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As a result, 22% of people held in local jails nationwide are not under the jurisdiction of the jail in which they are incarcerated. County jails are either required or financially incentivized to hold people under federal (such as the U.S. Marshals Service or ICE) or state jurisdiction. However, accommodating these agencies can pose additional burdens on county jail systems, and relying on these contracts for revenue can backfire when, due to policy changes outside of local control, the state or federal system’s need for jail space dwindles.
Ensuring people are not sent to jail for technical violations of probation and parole: Probation and parole impose conditions that make it difficult for people to succeed, and therefore end up channeling people into prisons and jails. People on probation and parole are often subject to intense surveillance and a long list of restrictions that, if not met, can land them in jail. In fact, the leading reason for revocation of probation and parole is not new crimes, but technical violations, such as being out past curfew, testing positive for drug usage, or traveling to another state without permission. Every year, 350,000 people, disproportionately people of color, have their probation or parole revoked. Some counties have found that as many as 14% of people booked into their jails are there for technical violations.
Read the full article about jail overcrowding by Alexi Jones at Prison Policy Initiative.
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